Unpopular Candidates to the Second Round

Analysis on the results of the first round of the French presidential election.
The people have decided: conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP) may pursue his race for reelection against Francois Hollande from the French Socialist party (PS).
The crepuscule of Sarkozysm

Nicolas Sarkozy has probably been the most unpopular President of the French Fifth Republic; with only 36% of satisfied voters, he gets the feeblest score in the history of outgoing French presidents. In 2007, many believed he was the one who would truly implement long spoken-of reforms. Not having pursued the usual parcours of French Presidents, he promised to be the “President of all the French” – excepting of course the “scum” of the banlieues, which in his own words while Minister of the Interior, were to be “cleaned out with a power-hose”.

Immigration and failed integration is indeed a recurrent subject in politics. The French pardoned Sarkozy’s ill-chosen words, which often seemed to compliment his outspokenness and frankness. They also believed that from now on “true work would be truly honoured” in his “remodeling of capitalism”. Looking back today, they are disappointed as these promises seem to have been mere chimeras – at least for the middle and lower classes, who felt let down by the numerous fiscal advantages conceded to the wealthy, and the depenalisations in business law that were effected under Sarkozy’s presidency.

Another point that displeased and raised questions about Sarkozy’s self-proclaimed frankness was the placement of his son Jean, who had not even completed his studies at law school, to the General Council of Neuilly, one of the richest suburbs of Paris, in 2008. In 2009 Jean was to be promoted to the position of President of EPAD, which administers the largest European Business Park La Defense. He resigned when protests against him became violent. People spoke of him as a successor to the throne. Patrick Rambaud’s book Chronicle of the reign of Nicolas First on the topic was such a hit, that it is now on its fifth volume.

Today, Sarkozy’s public image is that of a glamour seeking, uncouth, and egotistical “President of the rich” rather than “President of all”. This negative image, of course had implications on the current elections. According to Liberation magazine’s April issue, even Sarkozy’s administration purportedly does not believe in his success any more, as almost half of his cabinet members sought promotion to posts that would be unaffected by the results of the presidential election.

As for Sarkozy himself, he did not seem to bother too much about the first round of the election. It seemed to him that after the debacle of 2002 (when ultra-nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen successfully entered run-off elections against incumbent Jacques Chirac, thus forcing the French to vote for a President they didn’t want just in order to avoid a catastrophe), there was only a slim chance that the French would risk casting too many protest votes again. He thus was quite positive, that this time the majority vote would go to the moderate candidates – to himself and to Hollande, and claimed to have important arguments saved for the two weeks between the first and second rounds.

Before the first run anything seemed possible

In the end, 10 candidates presented themselves to the French public on TV, sharing the same amount of time expressing their policies in party meetings and visits to strategic locations. Next to Francois Hollande from the Socialist Party, only three others seemed to have a chance of reaching a decent score. The first: Francois Bayrou, whose ideas seduced quite some French, but whose “democratic movement’s” most important shortcoming was to not have explicitly positioned itself either to the left or the right. The second: Marine Le Pen, successor to her father as head of the ultra-conservative Front National. She succeeded in giving the party a human and even sympathetic face, and managed to transport the idea of being “close to the people” by campaigning on work-sites, thus gaining a majority of the support of 18-24 year old males. Finally, the leader of the Communist Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who surprised quite some French with his charisma and occasionally sensible statements and who was admiringly spoken of as a modern Georges Marchais by Arnaud Montebourg, special representative to the Socialist Party.

The candidates had enough to say about a wide range of topics, ranging from immigration, to the colonisation of the moon and even Mars. However, common to all candidates was the fact that no one addressed the most important topic of the moment: unemployment and equilibration of the budget in a time when the French economy is in truly bad shape. The candidates preferred hollow word-games and counterattacks, so that estimations before the date of April 22 2012 saw an abstention rate of possibly up to 40%. When asked whether they would vote for the first round, people on the streets would give responses ranging from: “I haven’t voted in years. I don’t believe any politician”, to ” Maybe, if I have time. I probably won’t have time though…”

Gouda versus Goulash: The final head-to-head rundown
Polling institutes were forbidden to publish preliminary results, resulting in curious messages being posted on Twitter all through election Sunday. For example, one message read: “It seems that the prize for Dutch cheese is going up by six points in comparison to Hungarian goulash”. Thousands of people followed these tweets and engaged in speculation, as the French media had already warned people that there would be surprises in store.

On Sunday it was made official that either Hollande or Sarkozy would have the chance to become President in 2012. The abstention rate turned out to be a lot less important than was originally thought, thus rendering Marine Le Pen’s vote of 17% quite impressive. As a result, Socialists and Conservatives alike are now trying to connect with her electorate. Hollande is declaring that he wanted to understand all these protest votes and would have an open ear for them. Sarkozy on the other side declared the Front National to be a Republican party just like any other and that the electorate for Marine Le Pen was to be heard and not to be shut out of the democratic process. He further appealed to her electorate by promising to review the existing abortion laws, and implementing the presumption of innocence for the police.

Responding to questions by the French radio station France Info, he clarified that even if he still believes that the Front National is compatible with the values of the Republic (as Marine Le Pen was allowed to run and was elected by the people in a democratic way), he would still not take any representatives of the party into his ministerial cabinet in case he won. Marine, as the French call her, stated that she was not open to discussions or contracts with the UMP, Sarkozy’s party. Sarkozy, who clearly doesn’t take Hollande seriously as a personality, also asked to be allowed to have three TV-duels with him instead of the usual one interview in order to be able to demonstrate to the people the true weaknesses in the arguments of his opponent.

The showdown will certainly be more interesting than what the French electorate got to see before the first round. The candidates are getting in gear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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